Psychology and Spirituality: East vs. West

After living in Korea for a little over a year now, I can say that western and eastern cultures are extremely different.  Well, not merely just extremely different but actually quite the opposite in their way of thinking and doing things.  Western culture so often looks at things logically and “black and white” while eastern cultures, I’ve found, actually encourage sharing emotions, harmony in communities, and developing relationships beyond a mere work environment. Though there are many trends that I’ve noticed and have tried to understand, I’ve felt that I’ve still been missing a bit of a “link” in fully understanding the east — and, after visiting Japan, I have been even more curious to “figure these cultures out”.

Upon the end of my vacation in Japan and arriving back to Korea, I happened to make a new Korean friend along the way.  Luckily through our conversations, I felt much more enlightened about understanding Eastern philosophy and culture versus the west.  These are a few points that I’ve realized that I’ve felt (so far) draws the line of differing philosophies clearly:

  • Western Christianity has the philosophy of “You are sinner.  You are bad.  To save you from sin, you need to be educated by the bible and our teachings”.
  • Eastern Christianity has the philosophy of “You are a pure being.  What influenced you to sin?  What influenced you to do bad?”
  • Eastern culture, in general, has a heavy Buddhism influence.
  • Western culture, in general, has a heavy Christian influence.
  • The Japanese have two main religions: Shinto and Buddhism, which they kind of influence each other.  Shinto is only Japanese and Buddhism came over from China and Korea.  Other religions are a minority in Japan.  Japan’s Emperor is looked to as a divine being (which correlates to the view of a “hierarchy” and honor your ancestors and God(s) in the east).  During WWII, all  people were told to honor the Emperor.  Clearly, after the atomic bomb and the end of the war this trend ended and Japan had a cultural impact from the US.  This opened them up to a democracy and starting things (slowly) like clinical psychology.
  • When considering that Japan still has an Emperor, their government structure is actually more similar to one of the UK.  While South Korea, on the other hand, has a government structure like the US because of the US influence after the Korean civil war.
  • The Japanese have had a philosophy of “we need to protect our God” — hence, their past drive for things like suicide missions, which is also a similar philosophy to Muslims.

This Eastern view of questioning “What influenced you to do bad?” is something I find quite fascinating.  This view is even a complete reflection of the police and government’s influence in the east compared to the west.  In western countries, you often see police watching the streets.  They are always wondering “Who is speeding” and to see if you are “Being a good person”.  In the eastern countries, I hardly ever see police.  I have never seen a single person pulled over for speeding.  The reason for this is because they naturally assume that “Everyone is good”.

This differing in philosophy has a greater impact than just with the government and police, but I’ve also seen this in economic and social development in eastern cultures.  When something new is introduced from a different country, the eastern cultures react in a way of “Oh wait, is this bad?  Maybe we should wait it out a bit to check that it is an okay”.

Based on an article about psychology in Japan that I found here, it seems that the country has been rather hesitant into really allowing this “drive to have psychotherapy” from the  states to really take off.  I’ve personally noticed the same trend in South Korea, where, despite a country having the largest suicide rate in the world, there are hardly any therapists.  The reason is because of this cultural philosophy of thought of therapy that says “That tells us we are bad, so how can that be good?”

I can’t help but see a big lesson behind this trend and to feel that it is something that the US and other western countries need to learn is that: You can’t truly help the majority of people by placing the belief on them that they are “bad” with personality disorders, psychological medications, and blaming their parents and family.  It only adds more negative energy, resistance, and keeps people in a stagnant cycle.

I see how the west has certainly done it’s influence on the east and it is producing a positive effect as far as their gradual economic and social growth, but when will the west fully accept and be influenced by eastern philosophy?  I feel that it’s starting and the trends can be found, but there’s still a ways to go.

If there is anyone reading who would be considered from an eastern culture or has lived in an eastern culture, I would love your input!  I can try to understand the cultural differences as much as I can, but it is still something that I’m still really trying to wrap my mind around because my own cultural upbringing has me in a “western” view of thought.


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About Jennifer Twardowski

Jennifer is a graduate student in transpersonal counseling psychology. Her interests are in personality typology (MBTI, Enneagram, Jungian typology), expressive arts, dreams, yoga, tarot and oracle cards, world religions, dance, photography, gardening, floral design, and more!

Posted on August 22, 2012, in Psychology, Spirituality and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 12 Comments.

  1. … yet Japan has one of the highest suicide rates in the world, and the internet in south-korea makes people forget to live … maybe your article is also a bit black and white 🙂 … the rainbow has all colours.

    • Certainly — there are many colors. Actually, despite the differing cultural philosophies the inner psychological processes are the same. It’s very complex on the surface, yet very simple at the root. It’s very different, yet still very much so the same… because it’s all connected and a part of the same source. That’s the beauty of duality (in more things than we are consciously aware of) in the universe. 🙂

    • Actually, I did see that Japan currently has the second highest based on latest statistics, so you’re actually not far off!

  2. Hi Jennifer,

    Living where you do now would give you an opportunity to compare philosphies and psychologies between the East and West albeit a somewhat blurred one.

    As you alluded to, both South Korea and Japan have around 6 decades of increasing Western Influence on both their cultures and with the advent of the WWW and increasing globalism of large corporations countries are losing their original individual identities and integrating into a more assimilated single culture.

    It would be interesting if you could find a North Korean to discus their version of eastern culture to fully appreciate how different or similar The East is to the West.

    Did you pick up on much enmity between the Japanese and the Koreans? I believe some hostility goes back a long way, particularly after Japan Invaded Korea in WWII.

    Would you say there is a dissimilarity between the ‘direction’ of East and West philosphies/religions, as from your post it would seem to me that While our Western religions preach that you are born from sin and if you learn to love God and work to do good in this life you will receive a perfect eternal life,(in a sense ‘forward thinking’) whereas Eastern religion seems to say you started out perfect in or before this life and you go ‘downhill’ from there through earthly influences. picking up either good or bad karma (A kind of ‘reverse’ of the West approach)

    • Oh gosh, you mentioned so many things that get so complex that I’d almost have to write another post! But I’ll try to sum this up: The cultural trends in the east are difficult for those to understand who haven’t lived here. In fact, there are some that have lived here several years and I’ve gotten the intuitive sense that they still don’t quite fully understand it to a point that they truly appreciate the culture (the natural tendency is to be stressed and be judgmental of the differences of living that “make no sense”).

      Honestly, in general I have felt that the set up of a communist economy is the most natural thing for cultures here. The reason is because the east Asian cultures all have this “hierarchy” way of living and that is one trend that is true in China, Korea, and Japan even to this day to some degree (watch “Mulan” and how they talk about “honoring your parents and ancestors” that seems to portray what I’m talking about). In Japan, this isn’t as much of a social influence anymore as it is in South Korea because of Japan’s major fall at the end of WWII. I mean, realistically, Japan was kind of communist in their approach and had the most power in the east before the atomic bomb. However, this philosophy of living has diminished more so in their culture than the others because of their major fall. They learned the fault behind it and appear to have “learned their lesson” and are very humble. I was honestly very impressed and wished that more countries did the same.

      On the flip side, South Korea never really had an event to “turn the table” like Japan has, and their economic and social development hasn’t quite taken off as quickly for that reason. They still hold on to this inner cultural pain of “foreigners are bad because every foreigner that has come to our country has been to invade us… so that is what keeps causing us bad when we are good” (maybe that will make more sense out of my eastern-Christianity reference… it’s just that they are hesitant of change). It’s that cultural-pride for their country that they hold, yet the trouble is that it seems they only cause inner wars with themselves and each other by holding on to the anger, naturally. They hold very very high standards to be admitted for college. Their stress level is very high because of this level of “honor” that still exists (hence the high suicide rates). The trouble, of course, with such high standards and pressure is that it only hinders creativity and innovation. For this reason, they are not quite as economically developed as Japan (though of course I would never say that to any Korean, or at least be cautious as to which one I say it to).

      Social differences between Japanese and Koreans just from my short visit: I saw Japanese HS kids of boys and girls hanging out together at a convenient store. A Japanese guy I talked to also told me how his sister in her mid-20s got pregnant before she was married (and it wasn’t a big dramatic scene). Now, of course, this is comparing a more urban areas in Japan also but these are still things that I have never seen in Korea. They have to basically keep their relationships secret unless they’re ready to get married, let alone actually be pregnant. Now, of course in South Korea the men also are required to do 2 years military service before college so that throws off their personal relationships as well. Of course some of the other foreigners I talked to that live in Japan said a bit otherwise (though they hadn’t ever been to Korea), but I still felt a difference there in how they acted socially.

      I’m actually really interested to visit learn more about China because, even though they are clearly communist, they currently have a very successful economy. I’m just intrigued to see how they socially function (compared to the other two) and how they are able to do well.

      But, to some it up, there are definitely things that the US and other western countries should learn from eastern countries — like perhaps less state driving regulations and other laws and standards that only cause people to rebel and “break the law” so often. It has amazed me how the countries here don’t have near as many regulations and laws but the crime rate is non-existant.

      So, when you really look at it east and west is truly a perfect duality of each other — completely opposite on the surface, yet in essence it is ultimately the same exact trends.

      • I can see this conversation could quickly fill an encyclopaedia! 😉

        I did warn you i rarely use 1 word when 20 will do and you seem more than capable of meeting the challenge 😉 But i will respectfully decline from making this the longest ever blogpost reply and just suggest that from my long-distance observation here in multicultural Aus, it appears to me that in the East they (used to?) place the individual and their need below that of others in the heirarchy and the greater good should outweigh the good of the one. Modern Western Culture today seems to greatly emphasise self- importance, self-fulfilment and personal ego over that of others and the wider communities/hierarchies. I think that western politics, particularly the two opposing primary parties model is largely responsible for the growing spread of fear of that which is not ‘us’ Whereas the Rigidity and unilaterality of the eastern feudal lord/Emperor God who rules all provides a certain cultural resignation to the status quo and knowing of one’s place in the world leading to security but stagnation.

      • Yes, you seemed to sum it up quite well. And I wouldn’t say that the east “used to” because it is something that still certainly exists. Both methods (easts vs. the west) lead to stagnation of the general population but in their own ways. It seems to highlight the importance that people need to break themselves of fear and doubts and to listen to your own inner voice to truly be “free”.

  3. Hi Jennifer, very interesting thoughts. I have always found fascinanting eastern cultures. I think eastern cultures emphasize more internal or ethical order, while west always emphasizing external or sociopolitical order. Both have two aspects, but their inclinations are different. Japan is now what it is, thanks to Emperor Meiji who opened Japan to west. General MacArthur after second world war changed entire political system but never removed Emperor; he knew emperor was the symbol of Japanese culture and remove it would meant for them cultural chaos. By the way, have you ever heard of Karlfried Graff Dürckheim? A german psychologist who used Zen Buddhism in his theories. He lived many years in Japan.

    • Yeah I felt that was why they kept the Emperor — it’s kind of in the same way that the UK still has the royal family. It’s just more of a symbol of cultural tradition. I did feel like, overall, Japan currently has a fairly good balance of the east and west cultural views. I saw more western style clothing and products than in Korea (they had regular black coffee and western-style breakfasts!). But, of course, I still have to consider that these were more urban areas, but I still felt it was more than in Seoul or Busan. It’s so interesting to see how cultures so close to each other have evolved as they have!

      I have not heard of Karlfried Graff Dürckheim, but thanks for pointing him out. I’ll be sure to search about him!

  4. I have been lucky. I was send to many small countries and study their beliefs. I learn many natural cures in the mountain of central and South American. I learn to meditate in a village in Asia. Here in the USA. Anything unknown is feared. Old places have great beliefs and natural medicine. I wish i had more time to learn more. We learn with each day of life. I like your thoughts in this blog.

    • Sounds like a great opportunity you have had! Where did you go in Asia? India? The US does seem to have developed this “fear of the unknown” that seems to keep escalating. I’ve heard so many comments from fellow Americans with comments of fear rather than an excitement to learn and discover whenever I’ve talked about my travels. It’s amazingly unfortunate how we can create such illusional blocks for ourselves.

  5. Nice segue back to the point Jennifer 😉 i agree – -although i suspect today many are far too preoccupied by what they believe is ‘their’ inner voice ( when it is based upon what ‘others’ think) and not on finding the silence inside that leads us to better hear that which is truly within ourselves – that pure perfect guidance that is at the core of every living thing. 🙂

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